Are we learning from history, or, are we doomed to repeat it?

I am writing this article based on observations and monitoring of the Corona Virus (COVID-19) Pandemic and how the global response or lack of. I have also monitored, from a distance, how the response varies from one country to another. For example, I see my home country, Lebanon, a country weakened by decades of corruption and financial constraints, responding better than some global power. In Lebanon, I have to

credit the new government and minister of Health that started the preparation before we had a single case in the country. What characterizes the responses in various parts of the world? Are we learning from history and even recent events or are we doomed to repeat it? A few other questions we will try to answer? Is the Pandemic a Megaproject? Is the Pandemic a Program? Is it a Risk? Is it a Black Swan?

The Current Status

It is possible that by the end of the day (2 April 2020), we will reach one million reported Corona Virus cases. Since most countries have not done extensive testing, the real numbers may be 2x, 3x, or even more. In the USA alone, which is on the top in terms of numbers of cases, the numbers equal to the 2nd and 3rd countries combined and still climbing, rapidly.

Some in the US continue to dispute the numbers reported by China. I honestly do not understand the obsession with #China and whether what they reported is right or wrong. I see this issue (complaining about China) as a disguise to cover the level of ignorance, racism, and incompetence by some countries’ governments.


Sure, the virus started in China and they had to apply strict rules to manage it. Why the rest of the countries did not take it seriously? More on this question later.

The response in China was not immediate, but once they realized the damage, they did enforce strict rules, travel restrictions and banning people from leaving their homes. To help with the ban on going out, the government provided food and supplies to all under lockdown. I think that limited the spread of the virus. However, let us assume the number is 5x of what is reported, which means a fraction of the population got it. However, can we accept that the response was massive and appropriate, give and take a few extreme opinions?

USA & Europe

In the context here, Europe does not mean all of Europe but the countries with the highest numbers, Italy, Spain, Germany, and a few others.

In the USA, we see posts on social media (or responses to posts) where some people are arguing that the numbers in China are not correct. So be it. The question remains, what have you done to combat it? Italy led the stage for a while, with Spain. Now the USA. Let me remind everyone that the virus started in Wuhan back in December. Since then, what have we done? In March, we had people on spring break on beaches. People traveling as the president kept saying we are OK from the “Chinese Virus”. People start bullying “Asians” or staying away from Chinese Food. In other words, racism, conscious or subconscious, took over. Incompetence at the highest level added to the ignorance and a result, we hear about possibly 100,000 to 200,000 could die in the US, with sever shortages and lack of adequate capacity in the medical domain.

In other words, we have a surplus of weapons but not medical supplies. Even at times like this, the US top echelons are increasing sanctions on countries in need, because of politics. I say we have enough politics but not enough humanity!

The Pandemic and Risk Management

In addition, we are in the project management community are jumping in. Some, are asking if the Pandemic is a megaproject or is it a black swan, etc. Let me address the question of Risk and Black Swan first.

A Black Swan?

Quickly, I am not an expert on the black swan but I will share what the author of the Black Swan has said. It is NOT a black swan because it is predictable. Also, he actually mentioned the possibility in his 2007 book.

Is it a risk?

Sure, it could have been a risk but once it was spreading in China and outside, it is no longer a #risk, it has become a known fact, a problem. We know it is there, we know it was happening around the globe and we know it is spreading fast. So, there is no unknown here. The only unknown is the number of people getting it, becoming sick or dying from it.

On a project, could we have included this in the risk register of the project? Most likely, no. On projects, with limited schedule and budget, we chose to ignore catastrophic events that are rare and have a massive impact. In my view, this would include the Tsunami, earthquake and once in a hundred-year storm. That does not mean we think these things will not happen. All that we are saying is that if we consider these things in projects, no project will be approved. Therefore, we accept these risks (indirectly) and deal with them if they happen. Many contract laws allow clauses like Force Majeure for these types of events. For example, as a result, we are seeing the Olympics and Expo 2020 delayed or could be delayed. These delays would not have been acceptable under different circumstances.

Having said the above, the scenario is different for countries and governments. A Pandemic is a risk they should have planned for.

Could we mitigate it?

First, let me answer this question, could we have prevented it? I am not sure, I do not think so. If it is not Corona Virus, it could be something else and we have faced similar things in the past.

Could we mitigate it? Yes, we could have mitigated the spread by being cautious, enforce social distancing where possible, and increase the production of ventilators, masks, sanitizers, etc. However, we did not and in many places, we are still gung ho about it.

I have to add to the earlier discussion. Some of the countries did have more time to respond and mitigate the risk but did not. At the start of this post, I had mentioned that my home country, Lebanon, started preparing before a single case hit and as of today, we have less than 500 cases despite the number of ignorant people that still refuse social distancing. In the USA, my adopted country, the virus was ignored. Just a month ago we had less than 100 cases (maybe a bit more). Today, we are approaching 200,000. Yet, in many states, we are still not doing enough to respond or mitigate. Do not we learn?

Is the Pandemic a Megaproject?

We are also seeing posts trying to define the Pandemic in a project management context. Is it a megaproject?

  1. The Pandemic is NOT – NOT a project, program, or portfolio. Therefore, it is not a megaproject.
  2. One can debate whether the response to the Pandemic is a project, program or portfolio. The Pandemic itself is an issue/problem that the world is facing.
  3. By definition, a program consists of multi-projects.

Click here for an atricle that describe the differences between a project and a program.

Why it is not a megaproject?

If it is a mega project, it would have centralized management, as a minimum. So, for a given country, and if centralized management, then it could start to look like a megaproject. However, to be academic about, this would be more like a mega program rather than a project.

That is the theory. In real life, we are having numerous ongoing initiatives some of it could be managed as a program and others, well who knows how it is managed, maybe on twitter.

Is it a program?

The answer would be similar to the previous paragraph. Again, the Pandemic itself is a problem/issue and not a program. The response to the Pandemic could be a program. However, we think it is not a program, since it is not managed in a centralized way. It would have been wonderful if the whole world unit to manage it as a Humanity Super Program, but we are not doing that.

Well, at a country level, is it a program?

Again, the answer could be no – since at any given country many organizations are doing something independent of each other. Pharma, Medical Supplies, hospitals, government, are mostly working independently.

Reflecting Comments

Let me add more project management context to this post. Seeing the response to the Pandemic, even from what would be considered powerful nations and economies, one can understand:

  • Why we have a large percentage of projects fail
  • Why many organizations have not adopted project management as core competencies –> which also means why PM is NOT a fully recognized organizational function equal to IT, HR, etc. 3.
  • It is also clear why we fail to assess and manage threats and ignore the opportunities
  • The same is true for governments that have not recognized the strategic value of project management

Feel free to add your own reflections.

Stay safe, keep a distance, and help when you can and where you can.


I must close with our offer to help. I would be happy to help any organization working on COVID 19 Response – on a pro bono basis. Also, for those interested in taking our online courses (a few), we will open them to you for FREE during the crisis; register on and let us know.